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Ask A Scientist

I was looking at a pack of gum. What is Phenylktonurics?

Asked by: Bach Nguyen
School: Vestal Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Dean Paulo

Answer from Jennifer Wegmann

Lecturer, Binghamton University

Research area: Eating disorders and body image
Interests/hobbies: Exercising, reading, writing
Family: Husband, Tom; two Sons - Nick (13) & TJ (11)  

The pack of gum that you were looking at was sugar free and it was more than likely sweetened with the artificial sweetener Aspartame.  Artificial sweeteners are able to sweeten foods and drinks with out adding calories and have become widely popular as more and more Americans look for ways to cut caloric intake.

Aspartame was developed in 1965 and gained FDA approval in 1981. Today aspartame is packaged as Equal and Nutra Sweet. It is used in over 100 countries and sweetens over 6,000 foods.  Aspartame is not calorie free but because it is so much sweeter than sugar that the minimal amounts added to foods and drinks does not supply significant calories. The maximum allowable intake has been set at 50 milligrams per kilogram body weight and to exceed the safety intakes an average person would have to consume roughly 16 diet sodas a day. Although the FDA considers aspartame to be one of the most studied additives, it has been blamed for many aliments including headaches, dizziness, and nausea. However, scientific studies have failed to show a connection

Aspartame contains the amino acid phenylalanine, and for most people this is of no concern because our bodies readily metabolize, or break it down. However, there are some people who have been born with the rare genetic disorder phenylketonuria ( FEN-il-KEY-toe-NYOO-ree-ah) or PKU. Individuals with PKU lack the enzymes needed to metabolize phenylalanine. When too much is consumed, Phenylalanine can accumulate in a person’s blood and tissues where it can cause damage including mental retardation. People with PKU need to monitor food sources of this amino acid including meat, dairy, eggs, and nuts.  Aspartame does not need to be completely avoided but people need to be conscious of their intake. So, to finally get to your question; Phenylktonurics on the label of your gum is a warning for people with PKU so that they know that the gum contains the amino acid phenylalanine. 

Last Updated: 9/18/13